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The story...

Five eminent biologists, leaders in their particular fields, died within weeks of each other after September 11th. And there may be a bizarre connection with the death by anthrax inhalation of a hospital worker in New York.

Our take...

Intriguing. So who is the first case? An early version of this story appeared on Rense.com, and they mention "Dr. Benito Que, a cell biologist working on infectious diseases like HIV".

If he's an "eminent microbiologist", a "leader in his field", then presumably there will be some online references to this before his death (ie not on a conspiracy site). Well, if there is we couldn't find it, nor any significant connections with HIV. Que seemed primarily a teacher, although he also did research related to cancer. The Miami University where he worked had this to say:

"The Honors Program and the Office of Undergraduate Research mourns the death of Dr. Benito Que, cellular biology research scientist at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Que was a favorite mentor of the Office of Undergraduate Research, personally supervising 18 students in the past 3 years. His unique approach to mentoring included having students periodically sit and discuss their future goals, along with his hands-on supervision in his laboratory. Dr. Que's students shared his passion for his research on a possible cancer breakthrough using low doses of arsenic. We extend our sympathy to Dr. Benito Que's family, friends, colleagues and students. He will be deeply missed by all".

Could he have been doing something else?

Dr. Bach Ardalan, a professor of medicine at the University of Miami and Que's boss for the past three years. ''There is no truth to the talk that Benito was doing anything related to microbiology,'' Ardalan says. ''He certainly wasn't doing any sensitive kind of work that anyone would want to hurt him for.''

But hey, maybe he's covering up. What about his death? The original article says "Police say his death was possibly the result of a mugging", perhaps by four guys with baseball bats. Later versions of this story suggest this couldn't be true because he wasn't beaten up. Read another Rense article, though, and they mention that he had hypertension and could have had a stroke:

The next death was Robert M. Schwartz. The original story tells us that he was found dead in his farmhouse, and had been stabbed. What isn't mentioned, perhaps because this will seem less like a professional hit, is that he was killed with a 27-inch sword.

What's more, since the article was written Schwartzs daughter has been convicted of conspiring to murder him. The prosecution said:

"Schwartz wanted her father killed to get insurance and inheritance money, and to get her father “off her back.” “He controlled her,” Basham said. “She didn’t want to be controlled, and she wanted the money"

In the case of Don Wiley, his car was found on a bridge, no sign of a body. What happened?

The Memphis medical examiner, O.C. Smith, concluded that yellow paint marks on Wiley's car suggest that he hit a construction sign on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, as does the fact that a hubcap was missing from the right front tire. Smith's theory is that heavy truck traffic on the bridge can set off wind gusts and create ''roadway bounce,'' which might have been enough to cause Wiley to lose his balance after getting out of the car to inspect the scrapes. He was 6-foot-3, and the bridge railing would have only come up to mid-thigh.

''If Dr. Wiley were on the curb trying to assess damage to his car, all of these factors may have played a role in his going over the rail,'' Smith said when he issued his report. Bone fractures found on the body support this theory. Wiley suffered fractures to his neck and spine, and his chest was crushed, injuries that are consistent with Wiley's hitting a support beam before he landed in the water.

The Wiley family considers this case closed. ''These kinds of theories are something that's always there,'' says Wiley's wife, Katrin Valgeirsdottir, who has heard all the rumors. ''People who want to believe it will believe it, and there's nothing anyone can say.''

Death number 4 was Set Van Nguyen. However he was apparently a lab technician, not a microbiologist (let alone a "world renowned" one), and the labs where he worked issued a report on his death once they'd figured out exactly what happened (www.dar.csiro.au/library/whatsnew/bparchive/bp0213.html).

"In December last year staff at CSIRO Livestock Industries' Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) were shocked and saddened by the workplace death of a valued member of our microsecurity team, Mr Set Van Nguyen.

He died from asphyxiation after accessing an airtight room within our secure area in which nitrogen gas had built up, displacing almost all oxygen from the room.

CSIRO has completed an internal inquiry, and a number of recommendations are in the process of being implemented, which aim to prevent further tragedies of this kind. I urge all our colleagues in other organisations to take heed of the hazards caused by oxygen depletion in poorly ventilated rooms where substances such as liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide are being used"

The final death was of Vladimir Pasechnik. The original article states:

"From the United States, the story moves to England. On November 23rd, Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik, a former microbiologist for Biopreparat, the Soviet biological-weapons production facility was found dead".

However they leave out "of a stroke" at the end of that paragraph, presumably because it makes the incident sound more mysterious. Is there anything overly suspicious about a 64-year-old having a stroke?

Well, some would have us believe there was. A further Rense article states:

"The Times obituary indicated that the announcement of Pasechnik's death was made in the United States by Dr. Christopher Davis of Virginia, who stated that the cause of death was a stroke. Davis was the member of British intelligence who de-briefed Dr. Pasechnik at the time of his defection".

So his death was announced a month after the fact, by a member of British intelligence? Not quite. What actually happened was a reporter found out that Pasechnik may have died, and called Davis (who knew him) to confirm this. 

It's also worth noting that Christopher Davis is a microbiologist himself, not a spy. He worked with intelligence, but only as a member of inspection teams, and retired even from that years before Pasechnik died (see www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/plague/interviews/davis.html).

So is there anything in this? We think not. This "cluster" is made to look more impressive by exaggerating the status of the five (Set Van Nguyen wasn't even a microbiologist), and inventing connections between them (it's often claimed that this person met that one, but never with a reference you can check).

Still want to believe? Then let's consider the population we're talking about here.

"Janet Shoemaker, director of public and scientific affairs of the American Society for Microbiology in Washington, D.C., pointed out yesterday that there are about 20,000 academic researchers in microbiology in the U.S".

That's academic researchers, so presumably excluding those working commercially. Also in the US, so excluding Australians, Brits and Russians (as listed in the more up-to-date stories). And if we're extending the list to people who "work in labs", like Set Van Nguyen, then it's even more.

Let's say 100,000 people, then (and that’s a low estimate). Chance of some of them dying in a particular year? Death rate = 177.8 per 100,000 population in the US, 1996, for 25-44 year olds (www.disastercenter.com/cdc), so that's 177 deaths from people linked to microbiology, each and every year. 

If we start factoring in the 45-64 year-olds then this rises dramatically (their death rate was 708 per 100,000). We could be closer to 500 deaths a year of people who, at some time in their life were linked to microbiology, almost 10 a week.

“But some of these are murders”, you say? Actually, many of the “murders” listed are assumptions. Benito Que, for example, is down on the latest list as one of the “murdered” scientists, yet officially cause of death is listed as natural causes. Robert Shope died of complications after a lung transplant, age 74, while Thomas Gold is listed as “murdered” despite dying aged 84, after “a long battle with heart failure” ( http://www.stevequayle.com/dead_scientists/UpdatedDeadScientists.html ).

Still, we might expect something like 6 or 7 murders in a group of 100,000 Americans per year (assuming they’re living in one of the safer cities, like New York, see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-1424319,00.html ). Of course you need to take into account that the latest figures widen our group from “microbiologists” to “scientists” (while also including, for instance, a surgeon and a lawyer -- http://www.stevequayle.com/dead_scientists/UpdatedDeadScientists.html ), and now include people killed in Iraq, too. This must increase our population significantly, and the death rate too, so the expected murders would be many times higher.

It’s an even more significant story with accidents. The CDC lists deaths rates as 35.8 per 100,000 for “Accidents and adverse effects” (all ages, 1996, see http://www.disastercenter.com/cdc/1accidnt.html ). That will give us hundreds of deaths for the new “scientists plus related others” group. 

Clusters are to be expected, then, especially if you go looking for them. Just to prove it, we did -- check out our mysterious cluster of teacher deaths from Spring 2005.

And while we're talking stats, what about that "bizarre" Anthrax connection? Apparently it's based on the fact that Set Van Nguyen shared a surname with the first anthrax victim, Mia Nguyen. A surprise? Not really.

My last name is Nguyen, which is the most common name in Vietnam.

"This surname is very common. In fact, over 130,000 people share the surname in the United States alone. As a result, searching for the Nguyen family is difficult when using search engines"

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